Kalamazoo Jazz musicians Ashley and Benje Daneman are not afraid to tell a true story. Ashley’s no-nonsense style songwriting combines well with Benje’s interpretive compositions, like in the song Floating On that Benje wrote about an experience he had walking the streets of New York City.
“When you’re in New York you see these people passing a lot of times and always going somewhere, doing something, don’t really have the time to stop and do whatever. And it’s just the way the city is and it’s just the way people are. And when you look at a broader scope, that’s just the way kind of a lot of our culture has becoming—just moving. And so I kind of had this sense one day—and actually the full title is Lonely People Lonely Times—where we’re just so close to each other but we’re so far apart in a lot of different ways.”
Benje met his wife Ashley at the Manhattan School of Music in New York while they were graduate students studying jazz performance. Both of the Danemans say living in New York really helped them grow as musicians, but after graduate school they decided to move back near family in Michigan.
“The word that came to mind all the time was ‘unsustainable,’" says Ashley Daneman. "For me as a single parent living in New York City as a musician, it was unsustainable just because of finances. And I needed a reprieve honestly, I needed to take a break. I had just been through grad school, there were a lot of intense things that had happened. So we came back and took a break from playing and honestly I only played in church for about a year and a half.”
The couple only started playing together in February of last year. The Danemans say they try to keep their music believable and honest, even on a personal subject like their faith in the song Nothing Can Separate.
“I so often have felt separated from the love of God. And so, one morning I sat down at my piano and I just said ‘I’ve got nothing’ like ‘I don’t have a clue,’" Ashley Daneman says. "And then all the sudden the song takes form and I’m singing this very simple melody and these very simple chords, and I’m just simply saying ‘nothing can separate me from your love.’ And it’s like someone’s talking to me at the same time I’m speaking out the lyrics. It’s a certain kind of flow that happens.”
Unlike some religious music, Ashley's songs show the struggles of faith about as much as the joys of faith.
“This is the nature of our planet is that some things are horribly wrong and some things are wonderful. And we have to live with that juxtaposition all the time,” she says.
In addition to writing their own songs, the Danemans also experiment with jazz classics, like Ashley’s sassy version of Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now from the opera Porgy and Bess.
“I see the composers material as just raw material for me to do with what I wish as long as it’s an honest story I can tell and I’m not trying to put anybody on with a fake story. I’m free to change the harmony. I feel free to change the melody at points and I feel free to alter the lyrics, as long as I’m telling an authentic story. And I’ve been criticized by others for that and they disagree. And they think that if—you might as well…I think I’m quoting ‘You might as well write your own song if you’re going to change all those things.’ And they’re not wrong, I mean I agree and I do write my own songs. But it’s fun for me, it’s like…it’s just a muse. Say ‘Well, I have this melody and these lyrics and what does it mean to me?’ And I put it through my experiences as a filter. So I feel free to do that but a lot of people don’t ‘approve’ of doing that to standards.”
Benje Daneman adds, “The way I interpret it, it’s kind of like a good storyteller that is re-telling a story. A good storyteller will tell the basic information of the story, but make it uniquely different because of that’s their art.”
You can see the Danemans at the Kalamazoo Public Library for free Wednesday night at 7 p.m.